Beautifully Controlled

MIKE WHEELER listens to piano music by Claude Debussy, Rhian Samuel, Francis Poulenc, Martin Butler, Robert Schumann and Benjamin Britten, played by Helen Reid


Pianist Helen Reid made a return visit to Derby Chamber Music with a night-themed programme that avoided the obvious – nocturnes, yes, but not by Chopin – Multi-Faith Centre, Derby University, Derby, UK, 3 December 2021.

The first one, in fact, was an early piece by Debussy, fairly generalised in style, but with occasional touches recognisably typical of the composer at this early stage of his career. Reid ensured some fine dynamic shading, and the final bass note was precisely placed.

Dream Images, by Rhian Samuel, with whom Reid studied at the City University, London, is a substantial work in three main movements and two interludes. In 'Winding paths', Reid presented the tiny baroque opening gesture crisply, as it threaded its way through the skittering descents and other obsessive figures, all vividly characterised. Interlude 1 brought a hint of dark mischief, before 'Distant fountains', with its echoes of late Brahms. Reid was in full command of the contrasts between bass sonorities and treble chimes, and the sudden darting movements had just enough impetuosity. The second Interlude, a miniature scherzo, inhabited a similar expressive world to the first; the final gesture in the bass was suitably emphatic. 'Weeping trellises' set up a flickering figuration out of which more defined figures emerged from time to time, a polarity that ran throughout, as did numerous bass/treble dialogues, all clearly delineated. The ending was beautifully controlled.

Helen Reid
Helen Reid

Poulenc wrote his Eight Nocturnes at various times during the 1930s. No 1 presents a typical Poulenc tune, not least because it is not as innocent as it first seems. The carefree high spirits of No 2, and its enigmatic ending were equally characterised, as was the sense of No 3 being a lullaby that turns into a nightmare and back, although here the middle section was less clangorous than in some performances I've heard. No 4, a slow waltz that is not so much haunted as distant, was nicely contrasted to the fifth Nocturne, with Reid evoking some fantastical moths (the 'Phalènes' of the title). The increasing melancholy of No 6 led to the mood swings between gruff and airy in No 7. Only Poulenc could have made the last Nocturne sound contented and sad at the same time, and Reid was completely on his wavelength.

Martin Butler composed Nathaniel's Mobile as 'a sonic toy' for his new-born nephew, with its mixture of gentle trickling figures and delicate chimes. The left hand spends the first part of the piece almost entirely in the upper half of the keyboard. The moment when it makes a significant move to the lower half was all the more effective for not being unduly emphasised, and the drowsy ending was magical.

In Schumann's Kreisleriana, Reid's command of its overall shape was as astute as her characterisation of individual sections – impetuous, playful and introverted as required. There was driving energy in the rhythmically obsessive pieces, and those fleeting moments in the fifth piece that sound curiously like Grieg surprised and delighted, as they always do. Throughout, Reid kept the textures finely balanced. The unsettling final gesture, when the music runs quietly down to the bottom of the keyboard and just stops, was neatly turned.

Britten's four-movement Sonatina Romantica was composed in 1940, then abandoned. The first two movements, 'Moderato' and 'Nocturne' were revived in the 1980s. 'Nocturne' may not sound wholly typical of Britten, but it includes some characteristic explorations of the dark around the piano's bass register, and Reid made it a compelling experience.

In fact, to hold an audience so spellbound throughout an entire programme of largely unfamiliar repertoire was a remarkable achievement.

Copyright © 20 December 2021 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK





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